China Joins the Search for Alternative Meat Protein
Beware Joe’s Foods
Last December, China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs released its strategy for the national 14th Five-Year Plan, containing within it a new section that should generate concern among the western manufacturers of alternative plant-based meats, including such razzle-dazzle companies as Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods, among others.
That is because the 14th Plan contains a new section on “future foods manufacturing,” including cultivated meat, recombinant protein, synthetic biology, and gene editing, among other technologies. In other words, China is significantly entering the field of manufacturing food that looks like meat and dairy products, pouring money and resources into development to cut its burgeoning need for meat protein.
Repeated attempts to contact Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods, both based in California, were met with messages that they wouldn’t comment. But China is going to make the development of look-alike foods into a pillar industry. Accordingly, the makers of substitute meats and dairy products should remember what happened to the solar panel industry, 3-D printing, wind turbine technology, high-speed rail, and other innovations pioneered in the west. The Chinese government and individual companies acquired the technology – often with the cooperation of western originators eager to make money in China themselves – and poured massive resources into their development, creating products – often clones – that western companies didn’t have the resources to compete with, at prices they couldn’t match.
Could that happen to fake hamburgers and chicken nuggets? Western companies have been growing at a breakneck pace, with ersatz sausages in big-box stores in the Philippines and engineered hamburgers in Burger King stores throughout Asia. The privately held Impossible foods said in May that its products are in 25,000 grocery stores and 40,000 restaurants and had recently expanded to the United Arab Emirates, Australia, and New Zealand. Beyond Meat, which has faced rougher sailing because of lackluster product reviews, predicted net revenues in the range of US$560 million to US$620 million, an increase of 21 percent to 33 percent compared to 2021. Beyond Meat has already invested in a facility in Zhejiang.
Others are making remarkable products. According to an article in the May 2, 2021 edition of Town & Country Magazine, “Today at least 33 startups in 12 countries are producing a variety of meats—from dog food to foie gras, pork to duck, chicken nuggets to beef patties. Some are promising cultivated meat in stores next year.” That includes uncanny copies of rib-eye steaks (pictured).
But China is awakening. As reported in a groundbreaking paper titled China’s Quest for Alternative Proteins, written for the Asia Global Institute, the think tank of Hong Kong University, by Doris Lee, the CEO of the China-based GFO Consultancy and David DuBois of Beijing Normal University, Building China’s protein sector is a particular priority. It is expected to account for nearly 30 percent of incremental global meat demand by 2025.
While the country has dramatically increased its own domestic meat and dairy capacities, they write, “the sector remains deeply dependent on overseas supplies of production inputs such as animal feed, especially soybeans, of which China is by far the largest global consumer.”
For two decades, China has been seeking food security with agribusiness investments as far-flung as Africa and South America, seeking to moderate this exposure to global shocks, at the same time reducing its dependence on the United States as a supplier. As has been reported widely, China is attempting to feed 22 percent of the world population with only 07 percent of the global arable land. Massive pollution and degradation have also taken their toll, so that only about 10 to 15 percent of the land is left good for agriculture.
The quest to develop alternative proteins has acquired high-level political support for developing alternative proteins from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs released its strategy for the national 14th Five-Year Plan period. It has caught the eye of the National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s most powerful ministerial-level agency, responsible for developing government policy.
As an indication of the attention Beijing is paying to the subject, the NRDC “published China’s first Bioeconomy Five-Year Plan, which calls for developing ‘synthetic proteins’, including both cultivated meat and fermentation-derived proteins, alongside other key biotechnologies such as biomedicine, biological breeding, biomaterials, and bioenergy.
Xi Jinping himself underscored this priority, according to the AsiaGlobal authors, “stating the need to diversify protein across animal, plant and microorganism sources to bolster food security.”
Since 2020, the Ministry of Science and Technology has offered a program of competitive research grants in the green biomanufacturing National Key R&D Program, the authors write, with national-level departments putting forward proposals to accelerate the development of cultivated meat and protein fermentation technologies, as well as policy support for the plant-based protein industry.
State and regional institutions and commissions are also encouraged to "increase investment in resources such as capital, technology, and talents" for alternative protein food scientific research projects and formulate policies to support the development of related industries, according to the AsiaGlobal paper.
As the paper – and myriad other sources – have pointed out for decades, “the advantages of alternative proteins are obvious. Plant-based alternatives use only one percent as much land as conventional beef. Cultivated meat lags a bit behind but by 2030, its comparative resource demands could be as low as five percent of agricultural beef.”
Making Consumers Love Alt-meat
Chinese tastes, of course, are markedly different from those in the west, and Chinese consumers have had good reason in the past to worry about the quality of food passed off as real. Scandals have included poisonous lamb chops, adulterated exported wheat protein, school food poisoning, tofu made with sewage, contaminated baby formula which sickened 300,000 babies, and one in which unscrupulous individuals melted down human hair with a chemical and passed it off as soy sauce.
Instead of seeking hot dogs, sausages and hamburger patties, consumers are arguably far more discriminating. For centuries, Buddhist vegetarians have been consuming remarkably real mock alternatives.
Nonetheless, according to Lee and DuBois, “Producers have had success in replicating processed foods such as sausages, fish balls, meat sauce and fillings for buns and dumplings. The challenge of adapting these applications to Asian tastes has extended the field beyond the global pioneers such as Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat to include local competitors including Starfield and Hong Kong’s Green Monday’s OmniPork.”
As the authors write, “Most dairy products in China are already processed in some form, reaching consumers either as yogurts, puddings, or UHT-packed milk drinks. Since cold-shipped liquid milk represents only a small part of total dairy consumption, overcoming consumer taste expectations is less of a challenge. Joining global competitors and traditional plant drinks such as soybean milk, new plant milks from domestic companies such as Yili’s Plant Selected and Dali Foods’ Doubendou reached the Chinese market in 2020. Advances in cellular agriculture will further improve the taste, texture and functionalities of alternative dairy.”
Joe’s Food, China’s first cultivated meat company – a spinoff from Nanjing Agricultural University and the Jiangnan University alt-protein innovation center – is already in business, the paper says.
As manufacturers bring better products to market, “the government has the ability to mount educational campaigns to address concerns over food safety and nutrition, and encourage patriotic or healthy consumption of alternative proteins. Accessibility could be as simple as requiring on and offline retailers to devote a certain amount of space to alternative protein options.
“Prices across the sector are already falling,” the report notes, and therein lie problems for the western development of alternative foods. If solar panels are the poster child, China’s ability to produce at a fraction of western costs may mean trouble. As with a long list of western products that China has priced out of existence with exports, “Even without subsidies, China’s manufacturing capacity will be a definite advantage in further lowering unit costs, particularly in areas such as fermentation and ingredient processing.”
China, the authors write, “is on a good footing to emerge as an early adopter and global producer of alternative proteins. A comprehensive alt-protein strategy that makes the best use of China’s natural resources, public funding investment in research, and production capacity, as well as favorable policies to ensure smooth market entry and consumer buy-in, can enable China to meet both food security and sustainability goals.
Western producers, beware.